The cinema awaits

Four to see from the first weekend of the Denver Film Festival

4106_D013_00374_CROP (ctr) Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

The Denver Film Festival (DFF) turns 40 this year, and for the next two weekends, the Sie Film Center, the UA Pavilions and the Ellie Caulkins Opera House become the center of moviegoing in the Centennial State. With roughly 150 movies to choose from, DFF offers viewers a strong slate of heavy hitters, foreign imports and a plethora from Colorado filmmakers. High time to head down to Denver and catch a flick, or three.

DFF opens strong on Nov. 2 with nine at the Sie, the best being Darkest Hour, an energetic and invigorating backroom drama about Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) from his appointment as Prime Minister of England to the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Though Darkest Hour only covers a few weeks, there is a weariness weighing on Churchill, a weariness Oldman captures with precision, even under a mountain of makeup. All the performances in Darkest Hour are stellar, including Lily James as Churchill’s secretary and Ben Mendelsohn as King Edward VI, but it is director Joe Wright’s ability to film talking and thinking cinematically that sets it apart. Darkest Hour could have very well been a filmed play with outstanding performances, but Wright knows his way around a camera and the audience is all the better for it.

The same is true for Chinese film Dragonfly Eyes (Nov. 3-5) from director Xu Bing. This half-documentary, half-narrative is constructed entirely from closed-circuit cameras — dash cams, security footage, red-light cameras, etc. — that was uploaded to a cloud service in 2013 and made available for anyone with time on their hands.

But Xu Bing doesn’t simply rely on observation; he favors imagination, using the footage as a jumping off point to construct narratives between the individuals seen on screen. The results are as engaging as they are horrifying, partly because of how much of our lives are being captured and collected, and partly because of the ease with which false narratives can be constructed and made believable.

There is little false in Moving Parts (Nov. 3 and 5), a sober drama about the realities of immigration and human trafficking from Nederland-based writer/director Emilie Upczak. Set in Trinidad and Tobago, Moving Parts tells the story of Chinese immigrant Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) seeking a new life and finding a harsh reality. Money and dignity are hard to come by and easy to lose; work is menial at best and demeaning at worse — not exactly pie in the sky.

There is no doubt many of the movies playing at DFF — and, frankly, any film festival — traffic in the harsh realities Moving Parts, Dragonfly Eyes and Darkest Hour depict. For those needing a spiritual pick-me-up, look no further than Agnès Varda and JR’s documentary/art project par excellence, Faces Places (Nov. 5-6). We’ve talked briefly about this uplifting and joyous artistic relationship between an 89-year-old filmmaker and a 34-year-old photographer before, but Faces Places is worth repeating time and time again. 2017 hasn’t exactly been peaches and cream for everyone, but there have been blips of humanity and hope. Faces Places is that tonic. 

On the Bill: The 40th Denver Film Festival. Nov. 1–12, Multiple locations,

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